HAVE you ever driven your car and then couldn’t recall the last five to 10 km? That demonstrates the power of the unconscious mind, which is also a key factor in your shopping behaviour, according to marketing consultant and author Dr Neale Martin.
Martin, who hails from the United States, is the author of Habit: The 95% of Behavior Marketers Ignore (2008), which has been translated into 10 languages and has had several reprints.
With a strong background in psychology, he is prepared to challenge even basic marketing principles that marketers usually take for granted. StarBizWeek caught up with Martin in Petaling Jaya when he was here to conduct a training programme.
Martin developed early insights into the power of habits as a counsellor and programme director for alcohol and drug addiction programmes.
From the mid-90s to the early 2000s, he became a futurist for the telecommunications industry, working alongside renowned marketing professor Jagdish Sheth.
Today Martin, who is chief executive officer of Georgia-based Sublime Behavior Marketing, believes that habitual behaviour is responsible for many of marketing efforts’ failures.
“Throughout the scientific revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, we thought the rational mind was in charge. What we now realise is that in reality, the unconscious mind is in charge most of the time,” he says.
“This is so revolutionary from a marketing perspective because so much of marketing is based on the idea that the conscious mind is in charge and that people are rational and making conscious decisions. What we’ve discovered is that people are making unconscious decisions most of the time and that they’re not following what we think of as rational decisions.”
While the conscious mind is capable of intentional thought, goal orientation, and abstract reasoning, Martin says it can only think of one thing at a time and tires very easily. When you have repeated a behaviour in a stable context numerous times, the conscious mind will, whenever possible, hand over the decision to the unconscious mind.
“The unconscious mind is processing 11 million more items per second than the conscious mind is; it’s processing a lot more information and feeds this information up to the conscious mind. The conscious brain normally just rubber-stamps what the unconscious brain tells it to,” he says.
Giving an example from the consumer perspective, Martin says a consumer may think about what detergent brand to buy the first time around, and may ask himself whether the detergent he bought previously was effective when he next buys detergent. But from the third time onwards, he may well be picking up the same detergent over and over.
“Habits are quick to activate (they are activated before conscious thought). They’re automatic and they’re persistent; they don’t go away very easily,” he says.
Marketers often aim to convince consumers of something, such as their product is better, so that the latter will buy it. But Martin says the reality is, most of the time the consumer is buying what she bought last time and she is not thinking about it.
“You may have convinced me but I don’t care, because I’ve already made that decision. And so a lot of time, marketing is actually working opposite the way the customer’s brain works,” he says.
Martin says the more complicated one’s life is, the more one relies on habits to avoid getting worn out.
“The brain is trying to be efficient and to quickly come to a good decision. Brands are a fantastic habit-forming thing, because once I trust a brand, I don’t have to think anymore,” he notes.
“But we have to recognise that the process is not about I (the consumer) having this big relationship with a particular brand, but that there’s a cue now − logo, colour, shape of the package − that automatically activates that behaviour.”
Martin cites the misstep that Tropicana Orange Juice did in the United States in 2009 by changing its packaging design (originally the carton had featured an orange skewered by a drinking straw), causing sales to plunge.
“Tropicana became invisible to the shoppers’ mind. The customers had orange juice on their list as they went into the store, but they went home without orange juice and didn’t know why. Tropicana had removed the cue that activated that behaviour.”
He says it is the unconscious mind that marketers want to train to the point where their brand simply becomes “how you get that thing done.”
“It’s not whether you love me or promote me (as a brand); it’s whether or not I’m so routine in your life that you use me automatically,” he says.
Martin says a lot of times companies think people buy their products because people love their brand. “The truth is, the consumers may not have thought about you in years! And that’s okay. If they use you, they don’t have to love you.”
Trust, though, is important. “For me to use you (your product) habitually, I would have to trust you. If you ever deceive me, if I ever feel you’re taking advantage of me, I can’t trust you. If I can’t trust you, I can’t use you habitually.
“That doesn’t mean I won’t use you anymore, but I will always have to use you with my conscious mind to activate it. It’s like a person you don’t trust that you have to do business with or work with.”
While maintaining trust seems very basic, Martin says that in the real world, companies face temptations.
He cites the case of cable news channel CNN hiring former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who had been embroiled in a prostitution scandal, to host a talk show in 2010.
“The thing about news, you need to trust the news. But CNN also wanted to get ratings and tried to find people who were controversial to make things interesting.
“The CNN brand needs to represent honesty. What does it say about a brand that is supposed to be about trust when it hired a guy who got fired from his job because he lied? And you were putting his face on your brand. To me, that was a horrible marketing decision.”
CNN cancelled the programme less than a year later, reportedly to stabilise sagging TV ratings.
Martin advises marketers to understand that they are not competing against rival brands as much as they are competing against their customers’ existing habits.
“You need to understand that no matter what you’re trying to accomplish, you have to think behaviourally. So I have to think, ‘How do I disrupt the old behaviour? How do I get you to initiate the new behaviour? And how do I reinforce that behaviour so you’ll do that behaviour enough times that I develop a new habit?’
“Most of the time, most companies see that 20% of their customers generate 80% of their revenue, or 20% of their products generate 80% of their revenue. That is habit. Those customers are using those products habitually, and all of those other times, the products are being used either in co-pilot or pilot mode.
“What you’re really trying to do is to get more people to use your product habitually. That’s how you become successful and make a lot of money, because the consumers are selling the products to themselves. I (marketer) am not trying to expend a lot of money to resell to the same person.”
On neuromarketing, he says EEG (electroencephalography) and other biometrics will become more and more integral to doing good market research with the passing of time.
“Unfortunately, (currently) the hype far exceeds the reality,” says Martin, who sits on the editorial board of Neuromarketing Theory and Practice Journal.
According to him, the term neuromarketing itself has come under much disrespect because a lot of biometric companies overpromise what they could do. Every one of the technologies has “some real profound limitations.”
Martin, who recommends Nobel Prize in Economics winner Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) as the best book on the brain’s psychology, is working on his next book which features a new model of consumer behaviour.
“It attempts to understand the unconscious as well as the conscious influences on behaviour in the dynanic marketplace.”
Martin says the conscious mind is very important, but to him, the future of marketing is about how to work with both the unconscious and conscious mind in concert.
“We (marketers) have to do this well if we are going to be successful.”